Paul Theroux Theroux, Paul (Vol. 28) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Paul Theroux 1941–

American novelist, travel writer, short story writer, critic, and poet.

Theroux's growing reputation derives from his steady production of highly commended fiction and travel books. An American expatriate himself, Theroux often focuses in his novels and short stories on strangers in strange lands and the resulting cultural conflicts. His travel books are among the best in the genre.

After graduating from University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Theroux joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Malawi in eastern Africa as a lecturer in English. He subsequently lived and taught in Uganda and Singapore before settling in England. He still travels extensively. His first travel book, The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), contains the impressions and insights gained on a four-month train journey through Turkey, Iran, and the Far East. The Old Patagonia Express (1979) recounts his trip by train from his birthplace in Massachusetts down through the tip of South America. His recent excursion around the coast of England added a third travel book, The Kingdom by the Sea (1983).

Much of Theroux's fiction centers on characters whose experience of a foreign culture has disillusioned them, giving them an unfavorable perspective on the values of their own society. The anthropologist of Black House (1974) is reluctant to return to a British village where the inhabitants seem to him more malicious, violent, and petty than those of the tribal societies he grew to respect. Similarly, the Peace Corps volunteer in Girls at Play (1969) and the insurance salesman in Jungle Lovers (1971) are shaken by the discovery that the standards of conduct they set out to dispense are in fact morally inadequate and potentially destructive. Many of the short stories in The Consul's File (1977) and World's End (1980) feature protagonists who gain comparable insights. Displacement, alienation, and the shifting identity experienced by foreigners are related topics in most of Theroux's work. The most developed of Theroux's emigrant characters is Allie Fox, the "epic hero" of his highly acclaimed novel, The Mosquito Coast (1981). This story of an American who, angered by his country's emphasis on materialism, moves his family to South America portrays the romantic American ideal of starting anew. However, although Allie is well intentioned, his actions are intrusive and harmful to the native culture.

Notable novels outside the realm of cultural conflict are Theroux's first novel, Waldo (1967), The Family Arsenal (1976), and Picture Palace (1978). They explore the themes of creativity and the artist's vicarious role as observer and recorder.

(See also CLC, Vols. 5, 8, 11, 15; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2.)

Roderick Cook

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Waldo is a] good funny novel. It starts, appropriately enough, with the hero's getting a cream pie flung in his face and ends with his becoming a star cabaret turn, as a sort of Writer in Residence—the Residence being a glass bubble in the middle of a dance floor. While Waldo is inside, pecking away at the typewriter, the subject of his prize article stands outside, reciting the story that made them both rich and famous: "Dying Mother Tells All." Thousands cheer.

Waldo's progress is like some kind of Mod Candide. We see him through college, in a home for delinquent boys, in running fights with his parents, and in bed for weeks on end with an aging, nympomaniac starlet…. His disintegration is made quite literal (all his hair falls out) and it is a pity that, toward the end, the scenes get so grotesque and surreal. We get the fact that there is a scream behind the laughter without the author's turning up the volume.

But there is a lot of wit and laughter in the book, and Mr. Theroux has such a wild flair for dialogue and the vivid scene that, if he is not careful, he may end up, as rich and famous as Waldo, in the glass bubble of a movie or TV studio, turning out scripts. (pp. 117-18)

Roderick Cook, in a review of "Waldo" (copyright © 1967 by Harper's Magazine; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission of the author), in Harper's Magazine, Vol. 234, No. 1404, May, 1967, pp. 117-18.

The New Yorker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Paul Theroux's Waldo the hero] is a shadowy, passive young man, who moves from one intensely symbolic site to another until he has turned into a slightly older shadowy, passive young man…. The novel is introduced with a quotation from Tristan Tzara, a founding father of Dadaism, which is an omen of the bizarre turns in the road ahead rather than a clue to where it is leading. The conclusion—"It didn't have anything to do with love"—is as good a conclusion as any to the collection of flashy insights and observations and snatches of overheard conversations that mark Waldo's development. These are presented in an unending procession of flat declarative sentences, most of which are not bad taken one at a time.

A review of "Waldo," in The New Yorker (© 1967 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XLIII, No. 38, November 11, 1967, p. 246.

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Paul Theroux has set his novel [Girls at Play] in East Africa, and the country is every bit as important as the characters. Its effect is pernicious; its principal weapon, dilapidation—both physical and spiritual. The action centres almost exclusively on a girls' school and the women who teach there….

Even in its smaller aspects, the novel is unremittingly depressing. The domestic guerrilla warfare waged between Miss Poole and Heather has not the slightest element of farce about it. Like their endless verbal bitchery, it is singlemindedly cruel and they take a good deal of pleasure in each other's discomfort. The Africans (disliked by most of the whites) are presented either as petty bureaucrats or as oafish, scrawny inhabitants of villages littered with cigarette wrappings and Coca-Cola bottles.

Rape and murder provide the novel with a climax, but they come as no surprise. Indeed, they seem inevitable; and the book's power lies in Mr. Theroux's ability to instil an aura of seediness and decay, and a resultant tension, in which violence is a constant possibility.

A review of "Girls at Play," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1969; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3511, June 12, 1969, p. 643.

Laurence Lafore

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Girls at Play" is a horror story—not in the usual sense, but in the way that "King Lear" is a horror story. It is, more precisely, a novel of interlocking horrors; of lonely women exiled from society by their own peculiarities; of an isolated girls' boarding school; of Europeans (with their obsolete convictions about white superiority) in an African land recently emancipated; of the Africans, proud, bitter, tempestuous and full of elemental hatred; of the collision between American goodwill, with its callow certainty that love can conquer primordial violence, and the stupid, sometimes sadistic, loathing with which the British respond to it; and, most of all, the horror of people lost in fear in a world turned upside down by invaders and their alien ideas.

Five schoolteachers—an Afro-Indian, an American girl from the Peace Corps, and three British women who cannot face life in England—find themselves thrown together in an isolated school for African girls in the Kenyan bush….

[Paul Theroux] tells his tale of terror and cruelty with cold detachment dressed in wit and irony, and his cold-bloodedness is so relentless that it becomes in itself a sort of cruelty inflicted on the reader. He is out to instruct us in the ways that life and death can be horrible, and he does so with such persuasiveness that quite trivial details become nightmares….

[The teachers'] common fear of Africa sustains them...

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Shane Stevens

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad brilliantly evoked the sense of isolation that white interlopers feel in Africa: the indescribable loneliness and physical languor that eventually bring on moral collapse. In the person of Kurtz, Conrad seems to be saying that Africa is no place for whites unless they have extraordinary strength of will.

In the deceptively titled Girls at Play, Paul Theroux returns to this haunting theme with a vengeance. His people, three white women—teachers in a girls' school in the East African bush—are not extraordinarily strong-willed, but women without men, hapless creatures set in an alien land at a wrong time in history. Today's Africa is for Africans and whites are, at best, tolerated. The women are strangers and have no business being here at all….

Girls at Play has the right feel to it. Yes, Conrad was right and nothing has really changed. Africa does have an imbalance lurking in the bush that is deadly to the Western psyche, and that will corrupt and destroy it.

This novel is well worth reading, perhaps more for its mood than for its story. But that should be more than enough.

Shane Stevens, "Strangers in Africa," in Book World—Chicago Tribune (© 1970 Postrib Corp.; reprinted by permission of Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post), February 8, 1970, p. 13.

Susan Hill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Jungle Lovers invites comparison with Graham Greene. The setting might certainly have been his, the serio-comic situations in which the characters find themselves frequently made me speculate as to whether Greene could have handled them any better. This is a Black—and a black—Comedy. I was reminded forcefully both of The Comedians and Travels with my Aunt, which is not to say that Mr Theroux sets out to imitate either, or that he is as good a novelist as Greene—yet. His use of language is never so cool and masterly, there is the occasional fuzziness in style. But, judged on its own terms, the novel is assured, mature and compassionate, the author has a fine eye for the ludicrous and he gives us a brilliant feeling of the stratification of life—something novelists of the 20th century seem to find harder and harder to do….

Unless one is intimately concerned in them, all the revolutionary struggles in smaller African countries can appear ludicrous but while Mr Theroux pinpoints the truth of this, he goes far beyond it, to the heart of the matter. Mullet [the protagonist] is as convincing a character as I have found in a novel for years; we continue to discover new facets of him as the book unfolds, so that by the end he is like a real person, both truly understood and essentially mysterious. Mr Theroux is a novelist of power and distinction and this is a fine, rich book.

Susan Hill, "Jungle Book," in New Statesman (© 1971 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol, 81, No. 2099, June 11, 1971, p. 815.∗

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Paul Theroux's comic and disturbing fifth novel, Jungle Lovers [is] set in the brilliantly, and sometimes maliciously, realized Malawi of today. His fable, with roots in satiric caricature and documentary terror, uses the linguistic complexity to underscore the wavering relationships between lingering British, Africans, and the two American protagonists, a genial insurance salesman, Calvin Mullet, and a tough, often brutal, revolutionary, Marais, the dissolution of whose interlinked ideals forms the central theme of the book….

The fable has a circularity which passes through so many degrees of the chillingly terrible, and so many of the humanly amusing, before it comes full-circle when Marais takes out one of the few policies Calvin sells and makes the as yet unborn son of Calvin and his Black wife his beneficiary before going to his death in the so-called "liberated" area. This clinches the point but has a slightly irritating air of contrivance; and yet it is the same cool, sometimes cold-blooded, control that guarantees the success of so much of the book. The background is mercilessly accurate, with the littered rejects and incongruous assimilations of post-colonial "culture contact" that have their antecedents in the absurd, decaying machinery of Heart of Darkness…. Some are originally observed, some the stock-in-trade of every expatriate reminiscence…. Some seem the throwaways of an irresistible brightness, as when his African trainee tells Calvin that "Thomas Hobbies" [sic] was right: "Life in Africa is nasty, British and short." All in all, though, there is the same brilliance of detail that distinguished this young author's other African novel, Girls at Play.

"New Out of Africa," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1971; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3617, June 25, 1971, p. 725.

L. J. Davis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Paul Theroux has chosen to measure himself against a very tall ghost indeed: Joseph Conrad. Jungle Lovers is an audacious attempt to tell the other half of The Heart of Darkness, to reveal precisely what it was about Africa that drove the humanitarian trader, Kurtz, out of his mind and reduced him to a raving savage with human skulls impaled atop his palisade.

The novel's setting is the Central African peanut republic of Malawi, a country that is in actual fact at least half fictitious—one of those arbitrary creations of European colonialism that bears little relation to any economic, geographical, ethnic, or other observable reality. It is a figment of the imperial imagination that...

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Mordecai Richler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I am unfamiliar with Paul Theroux's highly-praised earlier novels, and only wish I could like "Jungle Lovers" more. There is so much that is admirable in the novel, and deeply-felt; it distresses me to have to say that I, for one, found it ultimately unsatisfying. Forced in the ideological hothouse. Even so, "Jungle Lovers" abounds with virtues. It is genuinely perceptive. Mr. Theroux's ear for the absurd, for the nuances of British and African dialogue, is convincing, subtle. He also writes exceedingly well about the taste and feel of tropical Africa.

Put baldly, "Jungle Lovers" is about the folly of preconceived American ideas about Africa. On the one hand, the clumsily capitalist (Africa, the last...

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Benjamin Demott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Travelers, truants and transplants—Paul Theroux's favorite people since the start of his writing career—are the central figures in "World's End," his new collection of stories….

Impressive as much of "World's End" is …, the book's preoccupation with uprootedness does become wearing before the end. In Mr. Theroux's work in longer forms, no single preoccupation ever tyrannizes. A travel jotting in a novel stands adjacent to and competes with, say, a cameo appearance by a celebrity living or dead (Graham Greene, D. H. Lawrence, Che Guevara, whom you will)—or with a penetrating passage of art criticism, or a witty parody, or a splendid joke about science that one hasn't heard before, or a...

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Alan Hollinghurst

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Paul Theroux's short stories [in World's Fair] avoid … problems of commitment by their comedy and brevity; when he expands in the longer form of 'The Greenest Island' (some 50pp) the attempt at seriousness and psychological interest becomes dogged and unconvincing. His natural gift for place is a means of capitalising on his passion for travel, and the short story with its emphasis on plot and its need for quick and shapely resolution is an ideal form for him. A restlessness of movement testifies to a disinclination to dig deep. A whole vein of comic writing exploits the relishedly superficial, reflecting the tactics rather than the neuroses of life, and Theroux sometimes has a ring of pure Lifemanship, for...

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Jonathan Raban

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One needs energy to keep up with the extraordinary, productive restlessness of Paul Theroux….

He is as busy as a jackdaw in the way he scavenges for forms and styles. In earlier novels he has taken conventional popular molds, like the ghost story (The Black House), the thriller (The Family Arsenal), the celebrity memoir (Picture Palace), and made them over for his own thoroughly original purposes. The geographic locations of his tales now make an almost unbroken ring around the globe. His train journeys (The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonian Express) are best read as freewheeling, impromptu fictions—the adventures of a picaresque hero who happens to bear the...

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Frederick Busch

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Mosquito Coast has already been greeted in England as a denunciation of America's failures, and it may well be so greeted here. Paul Theroux, who lives in England but knows his native America, has surely decried, through his central figure Allie Fox, some of what is said to ail us…. (p. 1)

While indicting our aerosol cheese goop and excessive imports (Allic hates decaying America from both left-and-right-wing viewpoints) what he really hates is the world's imperfections. Maddened, in the jungle, he will cry: "It's savage and superstitious to accept the world as it is. Fiddle around and find a use for it." What a fine articulation of Americanness from this anti-American character....

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Jack Beatty

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Mosquito Coast is a seemingly straightforward adventure story which ends with a splotch of Lord of the Flies-like horror and which trails clouds of dark parable behind it. I think children would like it; the whole novel, which is told by a 13 year old, would enact their fantasies, and they would be agreeably scared by the gruesome end. As for adults, they can enjoy it on a more complex level, since there is an ambiguous interpretive distance between the tale and its young teller. In fact, the novel is made to order for a structuralist analysis of the tension between its story and its narrative commentary, which is to say the contrast between our perspective on the events and that of Charlie Fox, the...

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Robert Towers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is so much to marvel at in The Mosquito Coast—Theroux's orchestration of his story, his marshaling of technological knowledge, the easy authority with which he establishes and exploits the Honduran setting—that I wish I liked it as whole-heartedly as I admire many of its parts. But I found myself from time to time backing away, as though it were a bully with a club coercing my response.

By concentrating so exclusively upon the almighty Father, Theroux leaves little breathing space for the other characters. While Charlie is a sensitive and observant narrator, perceptive beyond his years, he is scarcely allowed a thought that is not centered on his old man. Mother (she has no other...

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Stanley Reynolds

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The title of Paul Theroux's new book [The London Embassy] is rather misleading. The anonymous narrator indeed works at the American Embassy but his work takes him out of that grotesque building in Grosvenor Square and allows him to wander all round London. In fact London at times seems to be the real hero of this collection of short stories. The city is always present. Sometimes it is a rather strange, foreign city—not so much a capital of an Empire but a far off, distant colonial outpost. This is because Mr Theroux is, like his unnamed hero, an American. It is also one of the pleasures of the book, seeing such a familiar city seem somehow strange and foreign.

The London Embassy is a...

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Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"There is an English dream of a warm summer evening on a branch-line train," writes the novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux in one of the many evocative passages in "The Kingdom by the Sea: A Journey Around Great Britain."

[One] of the challenges that confronted Mr. Theroux in writing about Britain was to penetrate the English dream and find the reality. Another was more practical—how to find a systematic route, for in "choosing a route, one was choosing a subject." And then a marvelous solution presented itself. He would travel around the entire coast clockwise….

[It] may sound monotonous to read about the three-month trip that Mr. Theroux finally made in 1982 by rail,...

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